Amiga Technical Resource

Working in Antarctica

On the 30th of August 2010 I began a new role of telecommunications technician for Scott Base, Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ and Downer Engineering. It began with a tightly packed four weeks of a variety of training before flying south to the ice on the 30th of September. The contract length of the position is around 13 months, hence it is known as 'wintering over'.

Below is a blog of progress and interesting events along the way, oldest at the bottom and most current at the top. Note that these are my own personal views and experiences which may not reflect the views of Antarctica NZ, Telecom NZ or Downer Engineering.

Diaries from the 2012-2013, 2014-2015 and 2016 seasons are also available.

Select month to view:
October 2010 November 2010 December 2010 January 2011 February 2011 March 2011 April 2011 May 2011 June 2011 July 2011 August 2011 September 2011 October 2011

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September - October 2010
  • 25/10/10: After numerous delays, the weather Gods were eventually kind enough to bless us with another blue sky and windless day to complete the remaining repeater work. The bad weather worked in my favour for once, giving me bonus time to power through a few more urgent jobs. So on Monday the 24th, a few helpers and I flew to the Dry Valleys to get the remainder of the radio network running. A good day actually, everything went smoothly to plan for once. The Dry Valleys name is due to the fact that there's little snow and ice around this mountainous area, unlike the rest of Antarctica. Some of the views were certainly not too shabby!

    Anthony_MtJJThompson.jpg (280313 bytes)
    Here's me doing a few rigging inspections and maintenance on the tower on Mt JJ Thompson.

    Anthony-MtNewell.jpg (262959 bytes)
    And the same job again, this time at Mt Newall, the last of the three Dry Valleys sites.

    Meanwhile, there had been a series of familiarisation trips run from Scott Base. This involves spending four hours or more jammed in the back of a Hagglund, grinding it's way over the ice at 30km/hour to go and see a completely f***ed old building, then spending another four hours returning to Scott Base. Fortunately I found something much more productive to do instead. I hate crappy old buildings almost as much as I hate long boring, unproductive trips. Let's face it, I could endure exactly the same kind of thing by catching a bus to Bluff, hardly my idea of a good time. For some unknown reason, many others thought otherwise and went along. They did take some incredibly good photos however, a few of them below.

    Hagglund.jpg (70616 bytes)
    For anyone who doesn't know, this is a Hagglund. It's an all-terrain vehicle made in Sweden and designed for use over snow and ice. They also float, which is handy when the sea ice breaks and you fall into a giant crack into the ocean, hence the escape hatch on the roof. The "water line" while floating is about half way up the side doors, so guess what happens when you open the side door while it's floating? I'll give you a clue; what's the opposite of float...

    ShackletonsHut.jpg (89792 bytes)
    This is Captain Ernest Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds as it looks today. It was built in the early 1900s so unsurprisingly, it looks like a wrecked old building. Oh wait, it is a wrecked old building. What more can I say, I'm just a history heathan. These people have slightly more to say about it if you're interested.

    You know, it really grinds my gears when I'm efficiently using a 15 year old computer for my day-to-day business and people sit there frowning angrily because it's old. But as soon as they see an old pile of building rubble they go all ga-ga. Make up your mind people, do you like old crap or not? And don't sit there harping on about "oh, it's so historic and blah-blah". Where's Chopper Reid when you need him most?

    Seal_in_ice_hole.jpg (74896 bytes)
    There are very few penguins about because they live near the coast. While Scott Base is technically on the coast, the ocean is frozen for several hundred kilometres, therefore we don't see many penguins. There are plenty of seals about though as they come up through holes in the ice to breathe and to sun themselves. The curious seal above had emerged in a hole cut in the ice for some ocean related science project. You would not believe how hard I'm trying right now not to write some incredibly inappropriate comment about seal clubbing.

  • 24/10/10: An interesting fact; the webcam picture at the top of this page comes from the camera balanced very precariously on the windowsill of one of my workshop windows. I'd wondered what that camera did, thanks to Vaughan Hider in Christchurch for pointing this out. If the picture on the website is of a big tangle of wires, it means I've accidentally knocked over the camera. Someone let me know if that happens and I'll stand it up again.

    SB_webcam.jpg (27601 bytes)
    The mystery-cam, no longer a mystery. It sits by my workshop window and places a photo on the internet every 15 minutes.

    My first real day off since I arrived here over three weeks ago. Time to do laundry, catch up on a few tasks and type this dribble. Last night we held a beach party at the bar to celebrate the final sunset. From now until March it'll be 24 hours sunlight per day; not a good thing if you're a vampire. Everyone was into the theme with fancy dress ranging from Hawaiian shirts, beach balls and one-piece pink 'mankinis' that left nothing to the imagination. Fortunately I did not wake up next to that the next morning.

    BeachParty.jpg (232078 bytes)
    No, I'm not in that photo. Yes, these are the people I have to work with. Despite looking like a freak show, they're actually pretty good. Not even I'm stupid enough to publish a photo of me doing something that stupid or embarrassing on internet.

    A sad point of the week was the departure of Steve Locke, one of the Downer Engineering technicians who had been helping me with the hand-over work for the past two weeks. He has a fantastic personality and is very knowledgable in most areas; all round great to work with. Aside from the fact he's a bit messy. You could lob a few grenades into the workshop after he's been at it and you wouldn't notice any difference. But on the plus side, he's also a natural radio DJ, which is another job I've inherited. With my "speak first, think later" approach to broadcast radio, there is possibly one or two people I haven't yet managed to offend in some way, but I'm working on it. That's right, the Broadcasting Standards Authority ain't gonna save you now!

    Shortly after Steve's departure yesterday afternoon, I was hit with the abrupt reality that I'm now alone for a year. Frightening to think that it's now only me looking after this vast array of telecommunications equipment. Some of it I'm still not entirely sure what it does, let alone how to fix it. Still, a majority of the work seems to be with two-way radio, at least I'm quite capable of that.

    SteveL.jpg (14137 bytes)
    Steve Locke, even more amusing with a frozen moustache!

  • 19/10/10: Our helicopter work ran on schedule and fortunately the weather was very kind to us; blue skies and no wind. Exactly what the doctor ordered for an expedition to Mt Erebus.

    In Winter, all of the radio equipment and batteries are removed from the mountain top repeater sites because there is no sunlight to provide solar charging. Our task was to re-commission the equipment for the 2010/2011 Summer season, in addition to performing a number of modifications. Would have been nicer to have had more time to prepare for the trip so that more focus could be put onto testing the equipment modifications we'd spent the previous week on. As a result there are a few issues; some legacy, some new, that will require another site visit to sort out. Considering that the helicopter costs something like $4000/hour, I think the boss was a bit miffed. Still, that's what happens when these kinds of things get rushed. The first section of the radio network is in and fully functional, so not all bad. More trips to the three Dry Valley sites in the pipeline to get the remainder of the radio network running. Perhaps next week if the weather plays nice.

    In my haste of getting everything prepared and getting the work done, I had no time to take photos. Fortunately I had a few helpers who managed to snap a few sweet shots along the way.

    USAP_Helicopter.jpg (44402 bytes)
    Our taxi, also known as the United States Antarctic Programme helicopter. Flying with the Americans is certainly a new experience. They're very careful and methodical about everything they do, seemingly taking safety to the extreme at times. Still, we got to Mt Erebus, Black Island and back in one piece, so whatever they do seems to work.

    Scott_Base_from_air.jpg (46019 bytes)
    Yet another Scott Base photo, viewed from the air. Mt Erebus is in the background, top right corner. In the foreground is one of the sea ice roads, heading towards McMurdo Station.

    HoopersShoulder.jpg (46240 bytes)
    The view from Hooper's Shoulder, Mt Erebus. Much more ice, snow and rock in view than Air NZ aircraft wreckage. Oh lighten up, that was over 30 years ago.

  • 17/10/10: The workload has been gaining even more momentum over the week. You know that scene from Indiana Jones where he stumbles into that booby trap and a giant rock rolls down that trench towards him? That's kind of what the workload feels like at present. We have a number of helicopter trips scheduled in a few days time to install all the mountain top radio repeaters with new batteries for the Summer, though I'm still in the process of preparing the equipment. Battery cables to make up, radio equipment to repair, modify and test. Good to be busy, but might be nice to have a day off sometime.

    As it is, Sunday is supposed to be my day off/weekend, but still ended up getting out of bed at 5AM to complete the last of the satellite work, then plodded on with some of the radio work in preparation for next week. Managed to slack off for a couple of hours to catch up on Emails and write more of this dribble. The workshop looks like Hiroshima ground zero at present with all the many simultaneous jobs in progress. The floor is a litter of test instruments, radios, cables, batteries and other crap that seems to have magically appeared during the week. If that damn cobbler can get elves that come in at night to fix all the shoes, can someone please send some me some elves trained in RF engineering??

    I did take the opportunity of good weather to have an evening break last night. Went for a walk around the ice pressure ridges, a few minutes walk away from Scott Base. Still brilliant daylight at 11PM, you wouldn't appreciate the photos below were taken late at night. The pressure ridges are formed by the movement of the sea ice colliding with the land, pushing the ice up into a broken ridge that runs parallel to the cost line.

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    Here's the front of Scott Base viewed from the pressure ridges on the sea ice. Crater Hill and the wind turbines are visible on the ridge line.

    Ice_ridges.jpg (25869 bytes)
    A typical view walking through the pressure ridges. Lots of broken sea ice in interesting shapes. The ice is frozen sea water, so unsuitable for your whiskey, unless you like it salty.

    Seals.jpg (44770 bytes)
    Two of the seals encounted on the pressure ridges walk. They come up through holes in the broken ice to lay in the sun. They smell incredibly bad, the closest I can describe is a truckload of rotten sardines. A peek at Scott Base there in the background behind some of the ridge ice.

    New_batteries.jpg (22404 bytes)
    We ran out of room in the radio workshop, so the main corridor is now the battery charging room for the 21 new batteries set to be installed in the mountain top repeater sites in a few days. But until then they're an enormous fire hazard! With a bit of luck no-one touches them. Worst case, we get to have a real life fire drill and an early Guy Fawkes display.

  • 13/10/10: A number of early morning starts and late night finishes with work at the satellite earth station, located on a hill top 5km away from Scott Base. It involved moving the 9m diameter dish antenna to investigate using other satellites as a backup in the event that the existing satellite we use was to fail. All went better than expected and the test results show we have two usable satellites within view.

    SatelliteEarthStation.jpg (15118 bytes)
    Here's what the satellite earth sation looks like; a kevlar radome that resembles an oversized golf ball. It protects the 9m diameter dish antenna inside from the wind and snow. All telephone, email and internet data to/from Scott Base is from this antenna, relayed via a satellite to the Warkworth satellite earth station, North of Auckland.

    Satellite_modems.jpg (52764 bytes)
    Equipment located here in the workshop; clockwise from top right: RF up/down converters, modem failure detection and changeover switch, satellite modems, data management equipment, speech echo canceller, telephone speech compressor, file servers and routers.

    McMurdo_station.jpg (45164 bytes)
    McMurdo Station; 3-4km from Scott Base, owned and operated by the Americans (US Antarctic Programme), is on the way to the Telecom NZ International owned satellite station. The description offered by my many co-workers summarises it nicely; similar to an old west styled mining town. It's over ten times the size of Scott Base, being home to up to 1600 Americans during Summer. Compared to the modern luxuries of Scott Base it is a bit of an eyesore, but the Americans have some good bars, coffee shops, gymnasiums and entertainment to offer. The photo above is entering McMurdo from the 'back', through the storage yards. The central business district is located towards the top of the image, closer to the sea ice.

    Wind_turbine.jpg (9705 bytes)
    One of the three 333kW wind turbines forming the wind farm, the primary power source to Scott Base. To imagine the scale of size, try to spot the doorway in the green enclosure at the base of the turbine. We have three large diesel generators that are now seldom used since the recent commissioning of the wind farm. In periods of excess energy supply from the farm, we export power to McMurdo Station. When there is no wind (seems to be a rare condition down here!), McMurdo supplies power to Scott Base. McMurdo uses diesel to generate over 1MW of energy.

  • 9/10/10: Getting stuck into the real work over the last five days, it keeps getting busier and busier. Everything from trying to get my head around the complex Telecom systems here at Scott Base, to paging, PA systems, repairs and equipment issues. Worked until 11PM last night making the main VHF FM receiver for Mt Erebus work like a receiver again.

    Apparently this is the "quiet period". Oh great, what have I gotten myself into?! On the plus side, I'd rather be busy as opposed to not having enough to do. However, even the most primative tasks are a mission to achieve at times. Wasted the entire morning on an unsuccessful attempt to program a GM338 mobile radio that was mounted into a Hagglund with machine screws and epoxy resin. The un-cooperative programming software might as well have been directly from the Devil's own data repository; plus there may have been a few words spoken that started with f and ended with k. No, not "firetruck". Well Mr Motorola, you're dangerously close to receiving a big ol' cup of penguin turds in the post. I take back all the nasty things I ever said about Tait programming software!

    In a lighter mood, here's some random pictures of the day...

    Dorm_room.jpg (34827 bytes)
    Here's my dorm room. About the size of a very small bathroom, and two us live there. Unfortunately my room mate is not a hot chick, although he is the bartender/shopkeeper.

    View_from_dorm_window.jpg (13883 bytes)
    The view from my dorm window. There are three wind turbines for electricity generation on Crater Hill behind Scott Base. In the foreground are two of the HF antennas for long distance communications.

    Scott_base_radio_workshop.jpg (39819 bytes)
    Here's what the radio workshop looks like at present, unfortunately a bit of a mess with so much going on at once. Aiming to tidy things up if I get a break between jobs, unlikely in the short term.

    Scott_Base_evening.jpg (29119 bytes)
    A nice evening tonight and a balmy -16C, perfect for running around on the snow in shorts and T-shirt to grab a few nice pictures. Quite pleasant if you stay out of the wind, else you have to resort to long pants.

  • 3/10/10: After a brief one-day settle in period, some of our group conducted Antarctic Field Training. This involves learning how to set up a polar tent, surviving the night and cooking dinner. Cooking was a surprising challenge; water comes from melting snow on a white spirits burner which takes a lot longer than expected. To produce a small pot of hot water takes the best part of an hour. Cooking food and trying to eat involves things freezing as you eat it and sticking to your gloves.

    AFT_tent.jpg (19764 bytes)
    2-person polar tent, all ready for a cosy night. I had a great night of sleep, inside two polar rated sleeping bags was much hotter than you'd expect.

    AFT_cooking.jpg (23217 bytes)
    Waiting for a potentially delicious dinner of freeze-dry something to cook.

    Other field training subjects included: emergency exit from a Hagglund that has fallen through the sea ice and into the ocean, basic search and rescue, drilling ice to gauge thickness for safe travel, probing hidden ice cracks to judge width. Also paid a visit Scott's original wooden hut.

  • 30/09/10: Departed Christchurch NZ at 9AM, landed on schedule at 2PM in Antarctica. -24 degrees C when we landed and no wind.
    Following a 40 minute Hagglund ride to Scott Base, our group received a base tour, some introductions then a tasty indian dinner prepared by the resident chef. Then a couple of beers at the bar (a can of Speights costs NZ$1.80) then time to write a bit of a website update.
    At 10PM as I type this, the Antarctic horizon is a brilliant golden yellow as the sun is setting for the day.

    C17_cockpit.jpg (25628 bytes)
    View from C17 aircraft cockpit during flight.

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    Departing from the C17 onto the ice.

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    Sunset from the window of Scott Base at 10PM.

  • 24/09/10: Spent the last 5 days fire fighting training at Woolston Fire Station. A very enjoyable mix of theory and practical sessions. Some of the many topics included the use of breathing apparatus, heat/smoke layering in a building fire, search and rescue inside a dark burning building, fire extinguishers, hazardous substances, extinguishing pressurised fuel (gas) fires, aircraft fire simulations. We all got very hot, wet, black from all the fire and smoke, but most of all had a great time thanks to the outstanding crew at the NZ Fire Service.

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    Helicopter fire simulation.

  • 17/09/10: Completed the first week of pre-Antarctic training in Christchurch with Antarctica NZ. Met the 35 people I'll be spending the next 6 months living and working with, including the winter crew of 10 who I'll spend the following 7 months with. Looks like a great bunch so far, everyone has a wide range of skills and diverse backgrounds.
    Training subjects included planning/decision making, team leadership, learning styles, understanding polar weather, health safety and environment, incident management, environmental protection, media relations and human phsychology. A lot to take in over just 5 days!

  • 4/09/10: Magnitude 7.1 earthquake hits Christchurch at 4:35AM.

    Christchurch_earthquake.jpg (39943 bytes)
    No damage affecting my property, but many others were not as fortunate.
    As expected, the training schedule took a hit this week. Been involved in other short term work such as setting up temporary cell sites to increase network capacity in specific areas for disaster management operations.

  • 31/08/10 - 1/9/10: Travelled to Warkworth (an hour North of Auckland) to the main New Zealand satellite earth station for training on the specialised satellite communications equipment.

    Warkworth_SES.jpg (58895 bytes)
    The station was built in 1971 and forms national and international satellite communications links. The antenna in the centre of the photo above carries the digital link to Scott Base as well as communications to and from other destinations via the same satellite.

    Warkworth_Site2.jpg (60564 bytes)
    The rear view of Warkworth site 2, a 30 meter diameter antenna. The largest of its kind in NZ, the antenna was opened in 1984 and is currently used for Pacific Islands communication and some university space research.

    Warkworth_SatModem.jpg (71155 bytes)
    Just some of the many satellite modems used for transmitting and receiving digital communications via many different satellites.

  • 30/08/10: The job and training begins! Travelled to Wellington for equipment training with Alcatel-Lucent and meet with the Telecom New Zealand International technical project managers.